by Valerie Verkamp
Landmark assistant editor
For the first time in more than five decades, streetcars are circulating the streets of Kansas City.
On Friday, Sharon Robinson, of Kansas City, jumped aboard one of the four streetcars running along a new two-mile steel track between River Market and Union Station.
“This is a long time coming,” said Robinson. “Kansas City is really growing, so the streetcar is a wonderful addition.”
Even by 21st century standards, these sleek bi-directional streetcars are quite impressive. Built by CAF Railway Solutions in Elmina, N.Y., these 78,000 pound streetcars will be traveling the route at speeds around 25 mph. The streetcars are actually capable of traveling 45 mph, but in this urban environment will travel the speed of traffic.
The streetcars are powered by electricity from overhead wires carrying 750 volts of direct current that travels down the pantograph of the streetcar to the tracks below.
The power is provided from four power substations dotted along the route.
While commuters on Friday for opening day boarded the streetcar at various access points, members of the KC Streetcar Team were on hand to ensure smooth traveling.
At peak times, passengers waited in line 10-45 minutes to board.
Small businesses along the route catered to passengers by offering free samples, live music and enticing specials. Near 19th and Main, a young street performer entertained the crowd. The city was alive with excitement and enthusiasm.
Many passengers said the streetcar is the ideal mode of transportation for attending concerts at Sprint Center, dinner and drinks at the Power and Light District and shopping at Crown Center.
The streetcar is always free and runs from 6 a.m. to midnight Monday-Thursday, 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday, and 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Sunday.
With 12,486 public parking spaces in close proximity to the track, it's easy to park and explore several of the city's core hot spots.
Kansas City Mayor Sly James was beaming with pride at a public celebration Friday at Union Station as he announced the opening of the public streetcar service.
“When I look around and I'm trying to take all this in,” said James, “I see a lot of people who believed this day would come and they worked hard to make sure that it did. They believed in something that was challenging and something that was risky, but they followed through because they were convinced.
“They also understood that if we are going to be the city that we are now and we'll continue to grow into, you have to be bold,” James said.
The streetcar project is part of a $1.7 billion investment of economic development through a Transportation Development District (TDD).
“With this project we witness new life being breathed into our city and we've established a conduit and a pattern for changing the way we live, work and play,” said James. “With this project we're providing the structure to critical functions in our city and for the critical functions of the heart of this city. Our businesses, our entertainment, our restaurants, but most of all our people are connected and we're innovative. We're transforming not just what our city looks like, but how it operates. That's when we thrive and that's when we grow.”
James personally thanked City Manager Troy Schulte for his full engagement on the streetcar project.
“He does the things that makes this city sing and dance,” James said of the city manager.
If the streetcar proves to be a game-changer for the city, additional track extending into other densely populated areas could be on the horizon. Extending the track is laying a solid foundation for future generations, said James.
Due to evolving infrastructure and strategic planning, Kansas City is one of seven finalists of the Smart City Challenge, a federal grant that awards $50 million to the city with a concrete plan to improve transportation by means of high-tech systems.
Also in the running are Pittsburgh, Denver and San Francisco.
“The cranes, the investment activity, they are no accident. We are positioning ourselves for the future and the streetcar is a big part of that vision,” said Mike Hagedorn, chairman of the KC Streetcar Authority.
George Guastello, president and CEO of Union Station, compared today's “bold” leadership with the great minds that came up with a comprehensive plan to construct Union Station more than 100 years ago.
Today, he said, this landmark has been transformed into a 21st century center for commerce, science and new business. A $7 million reinvestment is currently underway.
“But most importantly, transportation is now back at Union Station and it is a hub,” said Guastello.